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The Show Must Go On

It's Showtime in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are poised to win the NBA championship. In August, their home court, the new Staples Center, will host the Democratic National Convention, an event city officials had hoped would also boost the city's image. But for now, those hopes are on hold. With just 57 days left on the clock, the cash-strapped convention sponsors need a few more free throws.

After pledging to stage the event at no cost to taxpayers, the convention host committee on Friday asked the city of Los Angeles for $4 million to help reach their pledged goal of $35.3 million. The public subsidy would be in addition to $7 million in in-kind services, such as security and traffic control, that city officials previously promised for the summer event, which takes place August 14-17.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show the world what Los Angeles is all about," said Noelia Rodriguez, the chief executive officer of the host committee, L.A. 2000. Committee members defend the additional public money as an investment, and point to a study released by the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau that predicts convention events will pump more than $130 million into the local economy.

The desire to bolster the city's image and save face before a national audience prompted L.A.'s Republican mayor, Richard Riordan, to take a lead role in running the event and raising money four months ago. Riordan said that after months of disorganization and poor communication among planners, he "sort of woke up" and jumped in. He ousted the committee's leader and installed Rodriguez, his top aide, to the job.

"The Democratic convention is a huge plus for the city of Los Angeles, and that's my first love. My first love is not the Republican Party," said Riordan last month, who attended a high-profile Beverly Hills fund-raiser with President Clinton, and will even host a breakfast for the president next Saturday to raise money for the convention.

What's needed now is cash, at least $6 million worth. The host committee has raised $31.7 million so far, but about two-thirds of that is from in-kind contributions. Unless they get more money soon, work could start backing up.

Ben Austin, the communications director for the host committee, says there have been no delays so far. Austin points out that the arrangement with the city was always a public/private partnership. "The city’s been a great partner. …We're looking to expand that commitment," he says.

"It’s important to keep things in perspective. There’s always a final push to raise money," Austin adds, noting that the Los Angeles host committee has raised $10 million more than its Chicago counterpart had by this same time in 1996.

And what if the city refuses the money? Will the balloons fail to drop on cue? A convention planner who declined to be identified said the host committee is confident the money can be raied from other sources.

And the Democrats can now call on the services of veteran fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, who recently replaced former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer as convention chairman. He organized the May 24 "barbecue and jeans" gala in Washington, D.C. that raised a record $26.5 million.

But the host committee's request to the city is already facing critics, among them council members and taxpayer watchdog groups, who are loathe to see the city dip into money for services to keep a political party function afloat.

It's one more snafu in a planning process that has been dogged by reports of bickering, cash-flow problems and labor union disputes.

Still, the host committee points out it will spend less public money than the GOP, regardless of whether L.A. chips in more cash. The city of Philadelphia is contributing $7 million in cash to the Republican National Convention, which is also receiving $10 million from the state of Pennsylvania and neighboring New Jersey.